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Investigation Finds No Propaganda But Questions Linger

An investigation of the U.S. Department of Education's public relations contracts found both "covert propaganda" in one contract and "no covert propaganda" in other contracts.

An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found the Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable coverage of government education policies via payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.

While the Williams situation was found to be "covert propaganda," a separate investigation found that there was "no covert propaganda" among other contracts.

The "Final Inspection Report" by the Office of Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr., released in September, found that millions of dollars were used to promote Bush administration policies in newspapers and brochures, which is standard procedure, but it did not reveal they received taxpayer funds, which is required under law.

The two investigations started with Williams' past promotion of No Child Left Behind. Williams' public relations firm, Graham Williams Group, bought ad space in 2003 on a television show he owns and hosts promoting Bush's education law, and then used his column to support the legislation.

Higgins' report found that three previous grants investigated resulted in newspaper op-ed pieces and did not include disclaimer language to reveal that they were paid for with taxpayer money. But, the report states there was no evidence the department awarded these grants with "intent to influence public opinion."

But according to Rep. George Miller's office, which requested the probe, the finding of "no covert propaganda" is "ridiculous." When the grant recipients' did not divulge they were using DOE funds to promote Bush's policies, the DOE is either incompetent or ignorant, according to Tom Kiley, Miller's spokesman."It's about incompetence that rises to an unbelievable level because ... they're not assessing where the money is going. Or they are turning a blind eye to this," Kiley says.

The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment, saying all information was in the report.

Rep. Miller says the issue represents a bigger picture of "a sort of breakdown of accountability and responsibility in the administration," Kiley says. "People should know their taxpayer funds are used wisely. This is not a wise use of their money."

Reading Squeezes Out Fun

As the pressure gets more fierce to improve reading in schools nationwide, at least one state is whittling away elective courses that many educators say keep struggling students in school to begin with.

In Florida, a battle is brewing to increase literacy in middle and high schools. District leaders are stressing reading while cutting out chorus, vocational classes and Junior ROTC, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Norfolk Gets Top Prize

Strong leadership and solid partnership with the school board, unions and community led Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools to recently win the 2005 Broad Prize for Urban Education. It's the largest education prize in the U.S. awarded annually to the most outstanding urban school districts since 2002.

The $1 million prize honors the country's urban school districts making the greatest improvements in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among minority and low-income students. Norfolk, which won $500,000 and has been a finalist twice before, was up against Boston Public Schools and San Francisco Unified School District, among the four other finalists.

"Norfolk Public Schools have made remarkable progress in the past four years, demonstrating not only high achievement by all student groups but also greater improvement than similar districts in the state," says foundation head Eli Broad.

The other finalists, each receiving $125,000, include: Aldine Independent School District near Houston and New York City DOE.

Political Punch

-Mass Gov. Pushes $100 Laptops for Kids

Gov. Mitt Romney recently proposed in his overall education package offering newly developed and low-priced laptops and Internet access for every public middle and high school student in the state.

The $100 laptops, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, would begin with sixth graders and be phased in over three years. The state's teacher association president said the initiative's $54 million would be better spent on smaller class sizes and better textbooks.

-Gov. Bans Fat and Sugar in Schools

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed bills that would eliminate most fattening and sugary foods from public schools effective in 2007.

School vending machines will offer yogurt, nuts and milk, replacing candy bars, chips and colas.

-Free Web Access in Maine

Former Maine Gov. Angus King raised $850,000 in private funds last summer to create a nonprofit foundation to offer free Internet access to Maine students, according to

Maine Learning Technology Foundation builds on the state's laptop program for all seventh- and eighth-graders since 2002. The free home Internet connection will be offered to families of the laptop students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Charters Get The Big Thumbs Up

As the nation struggles to reform high school and improve reading, math and science skills among students in light of global competition, a new push is on the horizon. This time it's about more school choice--and charter schools are the favored ones.

The National Governors Association and Center for School Change recently issued a guide for governors recommending states expand educational choices via charter schools, virtual schools and tuition assistance for private schools.

"What we're trying to do here is if a governor wants to include choice to improve student achievement, here are some best practices and various types of choices," says Debra Fitzpatrick, program director and associate director of Center for School Change. "We were certainly encouraging magnet schools within districts, inter-district choice, open enrollment, and post-secondary enrollment options" such as if seniors want to participate in college courses to get dual credit, she says.

"We're not supporting vouchers but this is what some states have used to increase choice," she says.

Fitzpatrick adds that if states offer choices, all students should be held accountable in the same way, such as ensuring students who receive school vouchers are taking the same state test like everyone else in other districts. And the amount of dollars to educate a child should be consistent across the state, she says.

While there is still no concrete proof that charter schools are any better or worse than typical public schools, Nelson Smith of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says that over time, the pace of student improvement in charter schools is generally greater than that in public schools.

And, he adds, the report encourages states to have more than the local school district as the authorizing agent of charter schools, given that some local district people just might not want to create charters, which could hurt kids that might benefit.

Global Travels Expose Americans to Different Worlds

When high school students at ALPHA Academy in Magnolia, Texas, asked teachers what they would do to solve the HIV/AIDS epidemic across the world, Principal Matt Clark knew they had something special.

"These kids usually don't look past themselves," Clark says. "Our campus includes 92 percent at-risk students. So when they ask, 'When are we going to be able to connect to another child in another country,' there is a paradigm shift for that child."

The credit goes to the CURRENTS program, an international education program that unites thousands of American students with peers around the world via videoconferences via Polycom and the Internet, discussing pressing global issues to help solve them. Global Nomads Group and the ship, Semester at Sea, make this program possible, hop-scotching across nine countries on three continents over three months. This year, they are discussing the HIV/AIDS epidemic and exposing American students to other cultures, other ways of thinking, and myths of the disease. The discussions, which typically last over three days in each country, cover social studies, economics, geography, health and cultural diversity lessons.

AND 2003,
the percentage of students
in grades 1-12 choosing
to attend a public school
other than their assigned
public school
increased from 11 percent
to 15 percent.

The students also exercise critical thinking skills as they have to research the countries before they speak to the students there and devise riveting questions.

Some students are devising ideas on how to create innovative HIV/AIDS prevention programs, such as via interviews and Web clips, to disseminate to communities.

"We're trying to get out of that textbook mode and more curriculum and standards mode and bring in more digital resources and project learning and then follow up with programmed instruction," says Sherry Goodvin, director of administrative and student services at Maize School District in Kansas, a participating district.

Goodvin adds that while Americans don't grasp the epidemic's scale, having students listen to South African students who have lost family members to the disease is like a "rude awakening" for American youth and teaches compassion and understanding of the reality.

"The impact of globalization is, in the coming years, going to be huge on our economy and our work environment and that our awareness of other cultures is something we can't let slide as educators," Goodvin says. "Distance learning makes it more real."

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